Review: James Joyce: a new biography

James Joyce: a new biography  
Gordon Bowker  
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York 2011  
656 pp.  

To celebrate the 100th birthday of Joyce in 1982, I read Richard Ellman’s magisterial biography of the writer and it’s still, I feel, the best work on the man. This book admits its debt to Ellman and also to the 1939 biography by Herbert Gorman, which I’ve not read and which was heavily edited by Joyce himself — so much so, that Gorman never forgave Joyce and never wrote another biography.  

Joyce is the giant of modernist writing and his work glorifies the common person as hero — Bloom, the wandering Jew, is no less than Ulysses; Earwicker, the sleeping publican is repository of all the world and its workings. People are common, straightforward but also hugely complex. And thus it was with Joyce. He was in many ways a very timid man — terrified of thunderstorms and dogs —but he was also hugely courageous. He left Ireland with nothing but his talent and a determined vow of ‘non serviam’, ‘I will not obey’, a expression first uttered by Lucifer and quoted by Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is Bowker’s identification of the real-life people and events that appear in Joyce’s books as fiction.  

In Europe, Joyce initially lived in abject poverty with his mistress Nora Barnacle, teaching English in his own haphazard way and writing the books for which he was to become famous. During this period he was touted by the literary giants of the time as a genius but found it incredibly difficult to get published. Some of this was due to the moral climate of the day being in conflict with Joyce’s straight-forward language. In time, as he did get published and money began to come in both from book royalties and the generosity of friends and admirers, Joyce moved on to a life of flagrant self-indulgence and reckless over-spending. But he was always strapped for money, always pleading for loans, advances and donations — and always spending like a fiend. His daughter, Lucia, had to be institutionalized with schizophrenia, and that also drained his resources and caused much dissension in the family. He had to have endless rounds of eye surgery — a condition that in recent years some have tried to attributed to syphilis, a diagnosis which Bowker roundly rejects. But mostly it was his own reckless and profligate ways that left his family in penury when he died in 1941. 

Joyce, except for one short visit, never returned to Ireland and indeed, the Irish government refused to repatriate his body when he died. He imagined that he had scores of enemies that sought his destruction, at same time he was been spoken of as deserving of the Nobel Prize. The Irish Catholic Church and the bourgeois middle class regarded his work and person as “not truly Irish” — a judgement one time leveled at Yeats by Irish nationalists — but his relationship with Ireland, or more particularly Dublin, was deep and all-pervading in his work.  

This book gives many insights into his character. He remained in many ways ungrateful to those who helped him, even ridiculing them privately. He could hold pointless grudges but be a loyal friend — he helped to smuggle Jewish friends out of Europe as the Nazis approached Paris, at no small risk to himself. He could be dour and taciturn the turn around and perform comic dances or sing sentimental ballads at the piano.  

And yet through all the complexity and conflicted relationships with people and ideas, he remains a heroic figure, dedicated to his work. As fragments of the work that was to be known as Finnegans Wake began to emerge, the reactions were almost all negative. His long-suffering brother, Stanislaus, told him angrily that he was wasting his talent — but Joyce persisted through many and great difficulties producing a book, that while it is almost never read, is a colossus of literature and a monument to the perversity of Joyce’s genius. It’s also hugely funny. 

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